President Trump to pull out of Open Skies Treaty

Dr Ian Davis and Joe Malmkvist

22 May 2020

President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will formally withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, citing Russia’s inability to adhere to the agreement. The nearly 30-year-old treaty, signed by President George H.W. Bush, reduces the risk of war by allowing the 34 member countries to conduct reconnaissance flights and collect data on their military forces and activities.

Washington informed the other 33 parties to the treaty of its intention to deliver a formal six-month notice of withdrawal today. “I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty, and so until they adhere to the treaty, we will pull out, Donald Trump told reporters. He added: “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together”.

In a written statement, the secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the US could reconsider its withdrawal during the six month notice period “should Russia return to full compliance with the Treaty”. Moscow denies being in violation of the agreement. The US has complained about Russian restrictions on flights over the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and an exclusion corridor along the border of the Russian-occupied regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, none of the other parties believed that the Russian transgressions were enough to endanger the treaty.

By starting the six-month notice period now, the administration ensures that the US will have left the treaty irrespective of the outcome of the US presidential election in November.

This will be the third arms control agreement that Trump has withdrawn from. He took the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty in 2019. There are also concerns for the future of the last treaty limiting US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, New START, which is due to expire in February next year. The Trump administration announced plans to start a new round of talks with Russia on a trilateral US-Russia-China nuclear arms control agreement, despite China’s repeated assertions that they would not join negotiations for such an agreement. Under the plan, the White House would temporarily extend New START.

Many of the United States’ European allies in NATO will be unhappy with the US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty. All NATO member states have benefited from the more than 1,500 overflights carried out under Open Skies Treaty. These overflights enabled observation of Russian military movements and were an integral part of transatlantic stability and transparency.

In a joint statement earlier this month a group of 16 retired military commanders and defence ministers, including a retired NATO military commander, argued in favour of protecting the Open Skies Treaty. The statement said a US exit would entail weaker international arms control, and asymmetry in US-Russian surveillance, since Russia would still be able to oversee US military activities within Europe whilst the United States could no longer overfly Russia.

In the case of a US exit, the group recommended that European member states should make a serious effort to persist with the treaty and that the remaining members should collectively determine the effect of such a withdrawal, including the requirement under the terms of the treaty, that Canada and Hungary have to convene a conference no less than 30 days, and no more than 60 days, after receiving a withdrawal notice. In addition to the challenges of holding this conference within the given time limit and reallocating quotas after a US exit, the group of signatories recommended that the remaining member states should also address concerns that NATO member states could share Open Skies data with the United States post-withdrawal.

NATO Watch Comment: The NATO Secretary General recently intervened in a German debate about the future of nuclear sharing (see article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 11 May 2020)  in which he argues that the principal reason for basing US nuclear weapons in Europe is alliance unity. We look forward to reading his forthcoming op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that the United States should stay in the Open Skies Treaty for the same reason.